Media Matters

The Gray Lady’s Iseman Problem

A twisted and cheap political hit on John McCain continues to haunt the New York Times.

By 1.19.09

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The other shoe has dropped in the New York Times saga involving the newspaper's articles alleging Senator John McCain was carrying on an affair with a Washington, D.C. lobbyist. The alleged other woman, Vicki Iseman, filed a $27 million defamation lawsuit against the Times last month. Possibly helping Ms. Iseman's case is that the Times' stories appeared intended to damage McCain's presidential candidacy.

In a front-page February 21, 2008 story, the New York Times went to great lengths to leave readers with the impression that McCain and Iseman had been romantically involved. The story represented a marked departure from the generally fawning coverage the New York Times had given to the Arizona senator over the previous decade. As the major primary opponent to Texas Governor George Bush during the 2000 election and, later, a constant critic of Bush, conservatives and Republicans, McCain was the darling of the Times and other liberal news outlets.

The New York Times-John McCain honeymoon ended when it was apparent McCain would become the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. In classic tabloid-fashion, the Times crafted a lascivious story that left little doubt in the minds of readers that McCain and Iseman were an item.

A more reputable news outlet would not have published the story. It was long on innuendo and short on facts and on-the-record sources. The Times article cited as sources "top advisers," "former McCain associates," "a former McCain adviser," "a Senate aide," and "two former associates." The rampant use of such vague and anonymous sources is disconcerting to most news professionals.

I WAS PERSONALLY AWARE the New York Times was working on the story as early as October 2007. Stephen Labaton, who shared a byline for the piece, had called me several times to inquire about Iseman's relationship with McCain. I did not return Labaton's calls primarily because I viewed much of his work as sloppy and his motives in writing stories to be suspect.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a corporate lobbyist for my employer, Sinclair Broadcast Group, an operator of approximately five dozen TV stations at that time. I was very familiar with Ms. Iseman as some of the legislative interests of one of her clients, Paxson Communications, coincided with those of Sinclair. In fact, Ms. Iseman joined me in countless visits to House and Senate offices over the course of several weeks to discuss the ramifications of some of the technical aspects of the digital television conversion. (In spite of images to the contrary, the daily routine of some lobbyists can be quite dull.) At one point, I learned some Congressional staffers dubbed us "Ken and Barbie" because we had conducted so many meetings together.

A firestorm erupted following the Times' February 21 story. The newspaper's motive in publishing the article appeared transparent to much of the public. It was widely viewed as a hatchet job. Perhaps to buttress its first story, the Times published a follow-up under the byline of Stephen Labaton on February 23 implying McCain performed a special favor for Ms. Iseman on behalf of a client.

This second article accused McCain of sending a letter to the Federal Communications Commission "warning that he would try to overhaul the agency if it closed a broadcast ownership loophole." This assertion was misleading, if not false, on two counts.

First, it had been leaked that the FCC was considering regulations that would run counter to federal statute. In a December 1, 1998 joint-letter signed by McCain and then-Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Conrad Burns (R-MT), the pair warned the FCC that adopting rules that contradicted federal law would be taken into consideration during the next review Congress routinely conducts of the FCC annually.

Second, Labaton's assertion of a "broadcast ownership loophole" was factually incorrect. McCain's three-page December 7, 1998 letter to the FCC addressed the Commission's failure to fully implement the Telecommunications Act of 1996 enacted into law in February 1996. Nearly three years before McCain sent his letter, the Telecom Act directed the FCC to revamp certain radio and TV ownership rules. The FCC had failed to comply with the statute. Contrary to Labaton's editorializing, companies acting in accordance with laws and regulations does not constitute a "loophole."

Labaton's article claimed McCain's "unusually blunt letter" would benefit an Iseman client in a "marketing agreement" with my employer. In fact, there were more than 150 television stations around the country that had identical marketing agreements in place when McCain wrote his letter and they all benefited from the Commission fully implementing the Telecom Act. McCain wrote, "This letter is not written to advance the interest of any particular party to any proceeding pending before the Commission." To imply that only Ms. Iseman's client benefited from the FCC adhering to federal statute was disingenuous.

Further, McCain was late to the garden party when it came to House and Senate members urging the FCC to fully implement the Telecom Act. Beginning eighteen months earlier, at least 16 House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, sent missives to the FCC on the matter. Among them were House Commerce Committee Ranking Member John Dingell (D-MI), House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA) and Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD). Several more members sent letters after McCain sent his. Singling out McCain's letter to imply he was alone in contacting the FCC was dishonest, at best.

The New York Times' reporting grossly mischaracterized the events surrounding McCain's efforts to encourage an intractable FCC into complying with federal law. In fact, all 1,200 commercial TV stations were impacted by the proper implementation of the Telecom Act.

McCain's actions were no different from those actions by dozens of other members of Congress during that same period that were performed on behalf of hundreds of constituent television stations. Such Congressional letters are common practice. Suggesting McCain was performing political favors for a lobbyist with whom the paper alleged the Arizona senator was having an affair underscores just how low the New York Times would stoop in order to achieve a political goal. Whether Ms. Iseman -- who may have suffered a loss of credibility due to the Times' stories -- has a successful defamation case against the paper will be decided in a courtroom. A verdict in favor of Ms. Iseman could prove most damaging to the Gray Lady.

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.